Fear of Change Propels Populists to Power

Throughout Europe, fringe movements have been able to maneuver themselves into the political spectrum, rallying anti-immigration forces and a renewed sense of nationalism with considerable electoral success. While the world is globalizing and Europe becoming one, millions of people, from Finland to Italy, want to have no part of multiculturalism and change. Read more “Fear of Change Propels Populists to Power”

Anti-Islamism as Impediment to Growth

For almost ten years, Denmark has enacted policies that limit immigration and promote the integration of ethnic minorities in Danish society. Some now fear that the country’s economic woes can be attributed, at least in part, to its Islam backlash.

Since the start of this decade, Denmark has been ruled by a minority government of liberals and conservatives, sustained in parliament by the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) which is known for its nationalistic, socially conservative platform and tough positions on law and order. Since it first participated in the country’s parliamentary elections in 1998, the party’s popularity has risen sharply to stabilize at a little over 13 percent of the vote in recent years.

Under the People’s Party’s influence, Denmark’s ruling coalition has approved of different measures meant to curb immigration to the country, including the enforcement of laws that were designed to prevent marriages from being arranged and forcing migrants to learn the Danish language. Read more “Anti-Islamism as Impediment to Growth”

Political Right on the Rise in Central Europe

After the election of the conservative Fidesz party in Hungary last month, neighboring Slovakia is also taking a right turn, evicting the imcumbent prime minister in favor of an array of small parties campaigning of a platform of free-market capitalism and ethnic harmony.

Since the ascendance of a right-wing coalition in September 2002, Slovakia has pushed through market reforms and prospered spectacularly. Major privatizations, especially in finance, are nearly complete while foreign investment is rising. Slovakia does suffer from a high unemployment rate, currently second in Europe. The country has been a member of the European Union and of NATO since 2004 and adopted the euro in January 2009.

Prime Minister Robert Fico led a broad government of social democrats, nationalists and conservatives since July 2006. Both minority partners lost significantly in April’s parliamentary elections. Fico managed to win rather more votes than four years ago but due to the collapse of his coalition and a surge in support for newcomers, the opposition, headed by Christian Democrat Iveta Radičová, is expected to form a new government. The sociology professor will become Slovakia’s first female prime minister. Her party won just 28 seats in parliament but should be able to gather 79 out of 150 seats for a new coalition.

Newcomers include Most-Híd (from the Slovak and Hungarian words for “bridge”), formerly rooted in Slovakia’s Hungarian minority but now seeking to cross the ethnic divide as well as Freedom and Solidarity, zealously neoliberal and architect of Slovakia’s flat tax.

The party of Vladimír Mečiar, who, as prime minister, led Slovakia to a disengagement from the Czech Republic and was heavily criticized for his authoritarian tendencies, failed even to pass the 5 percent treshold required to enter parliament. The xenophobic Slovak National Party squeaked in, losing more than half of its seats. Both were Fico’s coalition partners and have apparently disqualified him in the eyes of mainstream voters.

The new coalition faces daunting challenges. One is to rein in public spending. Slovakia’s deficit has risen to 6.8 percent of GDP following an economic contraction of almost 5 percent last year. The other is to repair ties with Hungary which have been damaged in recent years over language disputes and a Slovakian law that strips people of their passports if they take dual Hungarian citizenship. Radičová has signalled that she wants to get rid of this measure and for good reason: Hungary ranks among Slovakia’s foremost trading partners.

Slovakia’s election results echo those of the Czech Republic two weeks prior where perceived corruption on the part of traditional parties swung votes behind newcomers as well, particularly in Prague and among young people. The Social Democrats lost 18 seats in the republic’s Chamber of Deputies whereas the new, liberal conservative TOP 09 won 41, making it the third largest party in the country.

TOP 09 is led by the aristocratic former foreign affairs minister Prince Karel Schwarzenberg and champions free markets and European integration. He is set to form a coalition with the slightly more conservative Civic Democratic Party and the other newcomer, Public Affairs, which campaigned on transparency in government and fiscal conservatism.

Public finances are a matter of concern in the Czech Republic as well. The country wants to bring down its deficit to the European maximum of 3 percent by 2013, down from 5.3 percent this year. It will probably be more difficult to effectively put an end to corruption. The old parties maintained dangerously close ties with Czech business for so many years that it might be hard to root out this “cancer,” as Schwarzenberg calls it, within short time.

Dutch Voters Swing to the Right

Parliamentarian elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday have left the political landscape in the small European country unusually strained. Until late into the night, the results were too close to call with both the liberal party and Labor vying for the top position. Ultimately, the liberals under Mark Rutte’s leadership prevailed and won 31 seats; former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen lost three for Labor compared to their last presence in parliament and ended up with thirty seats.

The traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats, were hit hard by the votes, losing almost half of their seats in the lower house of parliament. Outgoing prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced his resignation as party leader after the firsts results poured on. He will continue to lead the government until a new cabinet assumes power.

The uncontested champion of the election turned out to be right-wing politician Geert Wilders who more than doubled his Freedom Party’s support. Preelection polls gave Wilders around eighteen seats. He ultimately won 24, making him the third largest political party of the Netherlands, before the Christian Democrats.

A new government will be hard pressed not to involve Wilders in spite of his staunch positions on Islam and immigration which have been disavowed by many on the left. Wilders campaigned on his promise to curb the supposed Islamification of the Netherlands and has proposed banning the Quran, the burqa and taxing Muslim women wearing headscarfs. Even the liberal party, politically closest to Wilders, has described his rhetoric as extreme.

A right-wing coalition of Christian Democrats, liberals and Geert Wilders now maintains a slim majority in the lower house of parliament but would be prevented from passing legislation because the latter has no seats in the Senate. Together, the Christian Democrats and the liberal party have 35 seats in the upper legislative body; three short of an absolute majority.

A broad, “Purple” coalition, formed by Labor, liberals and two parties from the political center seems most likely at this stage, although the liberal party repeatedly attacked Labor during the campaign over its supposed unwillingness to enact necessary economic reforms. The next government will have to find almost €30 billion in budget cuts. The liberals have proposed to slash the foreign aid budget and reform social security. Labor fears that that will usher in the end of the welfare state and has warned that when the liberals have their way, hundreds of thousands will be reduced to poverty.

Even a “Purple” coalition has no majority in the Senate and would have to rely on conservative support to pass legislation. A “government of national unity” has been raised as a possibility. The three mainstream parties, Christian Democrats, Labor and the liberals, maintain comfortable majorities in both houses of parliament. Whether the Christian Democrats, after suffering such heavy losses, will want to run the risk of being overshadowed by the two larger parties is doubtful though.

Hungary on the World Stage

Hungarians often complain that the world knows so little about them. Foreigners mix up Budapest with Bucharest. Some people think that Hungarian is a Slavic language. They don’t know that Hungary was a superpower in the fifteenth century. They are ignorant of how Hungary saved Christian Europe from the wrath of the Ottoman Empire. And one could go on and on.

Well, right now Hungarians can’t complain. The country became world famous practically overnight. It took only a few words from Hungarian leaders to weaken the euro and create turmoil in the world’s financial markets. That was no small feat, although I’m not sure whether this is the kind of fame Hungarians dreamed of.

It was just a little over a month ago that a right-wing party, Fidesz, won the elections with an overwhelming majority and gained a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Hungarian constitutional arrangement is such that a party with a two-thirds majority gets almost limitless power. Most prudent politicians would not exploit this power. After all, only 52 percent of the voters cast their votes for Fidesz. The rest voted three ways: on the left, for the socialists and a new green party and on the right for a far-right party called Jobbik which received 17 percent of the votes.

But Fidesz leaders are anything but prudent and they began their activities in parliament with a barrage of legislative proposals that were supposed to turn the existing order upside down. In fact, Viktor Orbán, the new prime minister, called his electoral victory a “revolution.”

Revolutionary fervor is usually not the best foundation for achieving lasting results, especially when the so-called moderate Fidesz is trying to take the wind out of the sails of the far right. Jobbik demands eventual border revisions; the new government approved dual citizenship for those Hungarians who live in the neighboring countries. Since Jobbik‘s preoccupation with the Treaty of Trianon that fixed the current Hungarian borders in 1920 captured the country’s imagination, the government organized a Day of Remembrance on June 4.

The result? Slovakia with a large (over 10 percent) Hungarian minority, mostly living along the current Slovak-Hungarian border, was furious and struck back. Any Slovak citizen who takes advantage of the dual citizenship offered by Budapest will be stripped of his Slovak passport. If the Hungarians are burying their sorrow in memorial days and statues commemorating Trianon, then the Slovaks will erect memorials celebrating their release from Hungarian bondage. Romania has been quiet until now, but trouble is also brewing there. The head of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs expressed his opinion that the Hungarian government with its new legislation on the “unification of the nation across borders” is questioning the validity of the Treaty of Trianon.

Oh, yes, the world is watching, especially Brussels. If there is anything the world hates, in Europe as well as in the United States, it is quarrels between countries that both belong to NATO and are members of the European Union. They watch with particular suspicion countries situated in Eastern Europe, a region long infamous for its nationalistic disputes. They want stability and cooperation. The new Hungarian government, however, seems to be creating disputes by feeding on the population’s already strong nationalist sentiments.

But the Slovak-Hungarian dispute was nothing in comparison to Viktor Orbán’s economic “master stroke.” A brief background is necessary here. About a year and a half ago Hungary was in terrible financial straits. No one was buying Hungarian bonds and it looked as though there would be a complete financial collapse. But then, Hungary turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund and received significant loans on favorable terms. In return, Hungary had to promise to introduce an austerity program. This program was so successful that a year and a half later Hungary’s budget deficit has been brought down to below 4 percent.

Hungary remains under the watchful eye of the IMF and the EU. Every four months the Hungarian government must report to the representatives of the two lending institutions. And they are hard taskmasters, especially after the Greek crisis. It was pretty well known unofficially that Hungary would not be able to renegotiate the terms of the loan. But that situation left Viktor Orbán’s government in the lurch. Although the Fidesz politicians were not too specific about their promises, the general impression among voters was that as soon as a new government was formed, the “unnecessary” austerity program would come an end; a stimulus package would be introduced, taxes would be lowered, and the Hungarian economy would suddenly thrive. That is what people voted for in April.

For reasons unknown to most observers, the new Fidesz government simply refused to face the hard fact that the IMF and the EU will not budge. For months they have been talking about “skeletons in the closet,” meaning that the budget figures provided by the former Hungarian government are false. The real deficit is not 3.8 but 7 to 7.5 percent. So it would not be the current government’s fault that they cannot stick to the numbers approved by the IMF and the EU. Of course, this strategy also includes the implicit accusation that those IMF and EU officials who have been checking every item in the Hungarian budget are fools.

And now comes the absolutely incredible move on the part of the Fidesz policymakers. On June 3 about an hour before Viktor Orbán met with José Manuel Barroso, chairman of the European Commission, in Brussels, two high-ranking officials of Fidesz, Lajos Kósa and Mihály Varga, made speeches about the dire state of the Hungarian economy. Kósa, the managing director of Fidesz, used especially strong words, in effect predicting that Hungary would suffer Greece’s fate. Varga, who earlier served as minister of finance in the first Orbán government (1998-2002) and who was charged by Viktor Orbán to “investigate” the wrongdoings of the government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, almost simultaneously with Kósa talked about an actual deficit of 7 to 7.5 percent instead of the 3.8 percent IMF agreed to earlier.

My hunch is that these utterances in Hungary were supposed to help Orbán with his negotiations. It didn’t work. Instead, about half an hour after MTI, the official Hungarian news agency, reported the gist of the two politicians’ utterances, the forint, the Hungarian currency, began to fall precipitously.

The great Fidesz plan failed and policymakers should have immediately backpedaled in order to stop the financial hemorrhaging that affected both the Hungarian economy and international markets. But the charade continued for one more day. Viktor Orbán’s personal spokesman, 24 hours after the beginning of the debacle, repeated Lajos Kósa’s allegations about the country’s bankruptcy and his comparison of Hungary’s situation to that of Greece. And the forint kept weakening, dragging the euro along. This delay is harder to explain than the original blunder. Perhaps the top brass simply couldn’t agree on a face-saving strategy.

Another 24 hours went by before Mihály Varga gave a press conference where he had to admit that Hungary has no choice but to honor the approved 3.8 percent budget deficit. Of course, he stuck to his original story that the budgetary figures are false and therefore the new government will have to introduce further austerity measures. At the same time it was announced that the cabinet will have a three day emergency session during which the government will decide on the steps to be taken. We will find out next week whether Varga’s speech managed to stabilize the currency.

Everybody lost in this game, including Fidesz itself. But perhaps it will slow down Viktor Orbán’s “revolutionary” zeal. Certainly, the first attempts to turn the world upside down failed miserably.

Right Wing on the Rise in Dutch Elections

Dutch voters went to the polls on Wednesday to elect city councils in almost four hundred municipalities. In the wake of the government’s collapse two weeks ago, the local elections were closely watched as an indicator of which way the country will swing this summer.

Both of the resigning ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and Labor, suffered in the polls although the latter has managed to improve its poll numbers somewhat compared to when it was in government.

The opposition is emerging with vigor. Nationwide, both the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders and his nemesis, Alexander Pechtold, of the center-left Democrats are on the rise. Locally, the right-wing liberal party is expected to come out with most support.

The liberals, in part, have Wilders to thank for their comeback. His party competes in only two major cities. Many of his supporters in other parts of the country opt for the liberals because their immigration and security policy is similar to his, if less Islamophobic.

The progressive Democrats are also indebted to Wilders. Pechtold has positioned himself as the right-wing foreman’s staunchest critic in parliament, emphasizing the Netherlands’ traditionally open and cosmopolitan character as opposed to the nationalism of Wilders and his party.

Since he ran and won on his own ticket in 2006, Wilders has made a series of dramatic proposals to curb what he calls the Islamization of the Netherlands, including banning of the Quran and taxing Muslim women for wearing headscarfs. Wilders is awaiting trail for accusations of hate speech.

According to the polls, the Socialist Party will have to give up over half of its seats. The more moderate Green Party instead would nearly double its support.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.